Custom of Well Dressings

Well dressing is an old custom that has survived in many villages in the Peak District of Derbyshire. It is now a thanksgiving for a good supply of water, a commodity on which our lives depend, but its roots lie back in ancient times.

In around 1600 BC the Peak District was occupied by a tribe of people known as the Brigantes who took their name as the followers of the goddess Brigantia (the Holy One), a virgin mother, a warrior, a conveyor of fertility, a giver of prosperity to the land, a protectress of flocks and herds and a bridge between the material and the spiritual worlds. Beneath her lay many lesser deities who were believed to be embodied in stone, hence the henges and circles, in trees especially oak and rowan, and also water that issues from the limestone/gritstone intersections.

These warm thermal springs were thought to have medical attributes, having been heated in the fiery underworld of the supernatural, and were duly venerated. These springs invariably had a roughly fashioned stone or wooden effigy placed near a pit for votive offerings. The known habits of the Celts suggest that they would have gathered at these sites, not only to practice their religious rites, but also to seek relief from their afflictions and infirmities, by either bathing in or drinking from the supposedly divine water. The great spring festival of Beltane (May 1st) saw wells throughout the region bedecked with foliage and probably flowers, a custom to be embodied later within the Christian Church in Derbyshire and surviving to the present day in the form known as Well Dressing.

Today well dressings are beautiful pictures usually, but not always, with a Biblical theme, made by pressing flower petals onto a board covered with wet clay. This is done by a team of dedicated workers who give freely of their time and have great patience. Other attractions now-a-days are also available, e.g. Maypole dancing, teas, a shop selling a selection of small goods, cards, plants and photos of the well dressings themselves. Well Dressing is certainly worth a visit and our village is beautifully situated amid the Derbyshire hills, and popular with walkers and tourists.